It took being incapacitated with a viral blood infection eight years ago for Vanessa Tierney to see the potential of remote working, but it's a way of life she is passionate about now.
She and her husband, Ben Wainwright, have embraced the concept not only to build an ideal family life for themselves in rural Ireland but also to develop a business to deliver that choice to others. They're co-founders of Abodoo, a digital platform which matches what they term "smart workers" with employers happy to have people working remotely – be it at home or in a local hub.
For the couple, remote work has meant being able to move from the English midlands to raise their children in a lovely home by the sea in Co Wexford, instead of a “shoe box” in a city. They have no commute and Tierney works around spending afternoons with their two daughters, aged five and three.
“You do have these pockets of time during the day and it is lovely to be able to go and run on the beach – Ireland has a lot to offer. And education is brilliant of course.”
A native of Co Wicklow, Tierney was running her own recruitment agency in Dublin when she started having health problems in 2010. Ben, whom she had met on holidays, suggested she come to England for a second opinion and within days she was hospitalised there.
“I was only in hospital for a week but was treated for a few months and the recommendation was not to commute to Ireland while I was recuperating.” So she stayed put, continuing to manage her work team from there. But it started her thinking: “There must be other women or men who get to a certain age and they’re sick or they have kids and they need that flexibility.”
Another turning point was being asked by an international client to fill a role that was paying €200,000 a year but it was for somebody who could work from home. She wondered how they were going to find a person to do that – the only way was to start identifying possible candidates on LinkedIn and message each of them to ask was it an idea that appealed?
I think the perception of working from home is that it's €25,000 a year and tele-work
With Abodoo (the name is derived from "abode" and "do"), which went live last September, they're intent on brokering well-paid, skilled jobs with benefits.
“I think the perception of working from home is that it’s €25,000 a year and tele-work. It’s not like that anymore,” she explains.
“We wanted to establish Abodoo for permanent opportunities where you are employed with benefits, whether full-time, part-time or fixed contract. That is where our focus is. And it is only in the last few years that employers are saying their employees can work from home.”
Ray O'Connor, south-west regional manager with IDA Ireland, says it is interested in remote working, be it at home or in local hubs, to both "access untapped talent" and deliver jobs on a regional basis. "Obviously it is enabled by improving broadband nationwide, while there are some challenges there."
He cites research showing home workers deliver higher productivity than their equivalent office-based colleagues.
“There are really strong business, financial, personal and social reasons why companies and individuals could look to adopt this.”
Some IDA-client companies have already implemented a 100 per cent work-from-home operation, such as Shopify, which has a 300-plus workforce here. Another multinational example is the AppleCare At Home Advisor Ireland programme, which was set up just over five years ago. There are now hundreds of Apple advisers working across the country – and all receive the same benefits package, including paid time off and product discounts, as office-based employees.
O’Connor sees it as a way of harnessing the multi-lingual skills of foreign nationals who have settled in the south-west for lifestyle reasons and would not be interested in moving for jobs.
He worked with two Co Kerry communities – in Dingle and Sneem – to generate a data base of skills available locally. From that, the Starwood Hotels group, which has a large centre in Cork, was able to recruit enough native Dutch speakers to set up a hub office in Kenmare.
For Tierney, the working day at home is longer but, rather than talking about work-life balance, she prefers to call it work-life harmony – “they can run in parallel when you’re working from home”.
On a typical day she gets up at 5am or 5.30am. “I will do two hours’ work and a bit of fitness and then get the girls ready.” The eldest is in junior infants, the youngest in kindergarten and Tierney is back at her desk around 9.30am to do video calls and other work, before having lunch with Ben in their house outside Gorey.
“I will do another hour and then the girls are back. I will spend the afternoon with them and then I will probably do an hour or two when they have gone to bed, catching up on emails.”
She sees lots of advantages, both as a mother and a woman, working this way. “As a mum, it’s being there. Sometimes you will capture their feelings post-school and that needs to be addressed and you have got the time. That’s all they want – your attention.”
If they are sick: “I can’t explain how good it is to be at the school within five or 10 minutes.”
As a woman, she says: “I think we have come such a long way in terms of career and aspirations. But how can you have it all with children? Something has to give – whether it’s personal time, fitness, the kids. It’s really hard to have it all with a long commute every day.
“It has given me the ability to have a career but be here for the family. I think everyone deserves that – man or woman.”
Financially, it stacks up too, she points out. When she used to do an hour’s commute in and out of Dublin each day, “I definitely spent thousands more [over a year], between the diesel, the work clothes, the make-up, the coffees, the lunches – that’s gone.”
She reckons anybody who makes this work for them will never go back to a five-day office routine. However, she concedes it can be difficult if you are with the children but have to attend to a work matter.
“If I am on the phone too much, my little one picks up a seashell and stands beside me and starts speaking to someone in the seashell . . . I get the message pretty quick.
Shares the parenting
“For me, the magic window is 3pm to 5pm and I try not to book calls if possible,” she says. It helps that Ben is there and shares the parenting “completely 50:50, hand on heart – he’s English,” she adds with a laugh. “When I was living in England I saw there was a lot more 50:50 going on but we have also both been working from home since the girls arrived, so why wouldn’t it be 50:50?
“I think if he was going off every day, or I was, then you have to shift the balance but he is so hands-on and he’s the chef, not me, so that’s a bonus.”
After a “really tough” year developing Abodoo – “there was no revenue and we just had to believe in it” – the site is now generating cash.
It is estimated 216,000 people in Ireland are working from home, or from a co-working space, at least some of the time.
“In the UK, where we are going to launch in April, it’s 4.6 million,” Tierney says. “The other statistic that really shocked me is that by 2025, 75 per cent of all workers will be millennials. Millennials want flexibility, they don’t want to sit in traffic with everybody else for 9 to 5, especially when they start having children. So future planning is needed now.”
Abodoo aside, she is championing the whole concept of remote, flexible working, as being good for people, for companies and the environment.
“Maybe it’s post having kids, but you start to question the conventional ways of doing business,” she says. “Even Government agencies, which would probably be most traditional in their working approach, are green-lighting video calls. The idea that you must be in the same room and press the flesh is going.”
Tierney says that so far a couple of thousand people and 100 employers in Ireland have registered with Abodoo. The jobs being put up range from €25,000 to €180,000 a year and the average salary of those registering is €40,000-€60,000, mostly with five to 10 years’ experience.
There is high demand from workers aged in their late 20s and 30s, Tierney reports, adding: “I don’t know whether that is the housing crisis, the commuting, or the kids.”
Going back to the ‘real world’
Working from home was “brilliant” for mother of four Carol Faughnan during a phase in her life but she got to a stage where she craved a return to the workplace.
“I am back in the real world,” she laughs, having started a full-time job last September with a tech firm in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, which is a 40-minute commute from her home near Carnsore Point.
However, she attributes being able to have that choice to the skills she developed while working remotely for three years as a county representative for Mykidstime. com, a parenting website, which led on to her running her own digital marketing and web design business. Although she had plenty to do raising four boys, who are now aged 16, 15, six and four, "I am the kind of person that needs to be busy".
Faughnan had returned from Spain, where she was teaching English, to do a masters in tourism marketing, with a view to setting up her own language agency here. But the recession scuppered those plans.
She was delighted when the Mykidstime opportunity came up in 2009, enabling her to put her masters in education into practice, as well as acquire digital skills – not to mention have an income – in the midst of caring for young children.
She got “really good work experience” in sales and marketing, using software programmes and keeping a data base. Mykidstime was very good, she says, in providing training days, which was a chance for the team to meet up.
Commission was also very fair. “Normally in a sales role it might be 20 or 30 per cent but with Mykidstime it was 50:50.”
Jill Holtz, who co-founded Mykidstime 10 years ago, says: "As a start-up we wanted to keep costs low, so we made the decision early on to try to facilitate home-based working to avoid office costs. That also forced us to find ways of using technology innovatively to communicate well together and allow people to do their job effectively from wherever they wanted to work from."
Over the past decade, she adds, Mykidstime has enabled more than 50 mums and dads to work with us from home on a part-time, flexible basis using technology.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t done it,” says Faughnan. “It gave me great confidence and was brilliant for making networks.”
While she misses the flexibility of home working, she is enjoying having work separate from family life now.
Family always comes first when you are working at home – no matter what way you try to plan it
“It is very, very hard to work from home when you are the primary carer and the primary housekeeper. Family always comes first when you are working at home – no matter what way you try to plan it. I just think it is a cleaner divide. I don’t feel I am juggling as much. I also have the travel time to and from work and am able to compose myself in between.”
When you are working outside, you tend to pay more attention to your self-care and that lifts your confidence and self-esteem, she points out.
The family quickly adjusted to her new way of working and her husband, John Hersey, has willingly stepped up to do more on the home front. It helps, she says, that he is self-employed and has people working for him.
She also sees the value in him having autonomy as a parent without her around all the time. “I think when I come home, things become a bit hectic but they don’t act up for him at all. He seems to have things running smoothly.”
Remote working a ‘game-changer’
After some years of living and working in Dublin city centre, Dan O’Neill thought the idea of remote working was too good to be true.
But 16 months ago, he took the plunge with e-commerce platform Shopify, whose entire Irish workforce of 300-plus do their jobs remotely. At the time it required a move to Galway but, after the recent arrival of their second child, they are able to stay temporarily in the home of his partner Kate’s parents outside Kildare town, for a little extra family support.
As the father of two young children – aged three years and just 13 weeks – O’Neill says it has been a “game changer”, saving money and time, resulting in a better work-life balance.
“It is the reason I took the job with Shopify because they empower us to really own our work-life balance and support us in that.”
With their first child, the baby would be asleep by the time he got home at 7pm or 8pm. “For me it is important to have that time, which was taken away.”
Being able to rent rurally is a huge stress reliever, he says, with the long-term aim being to own their own home.
However, there are challenges about working from home. “You really have to prioritise face time with people – you might not leave your house for a week.
“You also need to make sure you detach from your job when you have your laptop at home. That is something that can be difficult.” But he counts himself lucky that he is working for a company where “there is no overt pressure to be a crazy, late-night worker”.
The other problem is patchy broadband. “We are struggling with trying to find an area with decent internet but is also low cost to rent.”